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Michael Francis Lindsay (1909–1994)

by James Cotton

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Michael Francis Morris Lindsay, 2nd Baron Lindsay of Birker (1909–1994), professor of international relations, was born on 24 February 1909 in London, eldest child of Scottish-born Alexander Dunlop (Baron) Lindsay, tutor and later master of Balliol College, Oxford, and his English-born wife Erica Violet, née Storr. His father was a noted scholar and academic innovator, ennobled under Clement (Earl) Attlee’s Labour government. Michael was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk, and at Balliol College (BA, 1931). He studied science and won a Domus scholarship before transferring to philosophy, politics, and economics. After further studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was assistant director of the second industrial survey of South Wales (1936–37).

From 1938 Lindsay taught economics at Yenching (Yanjing) University in Peking (Beijing), where his ‘Notes on Monetary Theory’ (1940) constituted one of the first appearances of Keynesian ideas in China. On 25 June 1941 at the British Consulate, Peking, Lindsay married Li Hsiao Li (Li Xiaoli), his former student. Photographs show him as thin, balding, and bespectacled; she recalled his lovely eyes and elegant nose (Lindsay 2007, 71–72). The couple helped members of the communist-led underground in their resistance to the Japanese occupiers of North China. They smuggled medical supplies, and Michael employed his expertise in radio engineering to assist with the operation and maintenance of equipment. On the day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and entry into World War II, he and Hsiao Li escaped ahead of the Japanese Kempeitai (military police) who had been sent to arrest them. For over two years they travelled with the communist Eighth Route Army in the mountains of Hopeh (Hebei) and Shansi (Shanxi). In May 1944 they moved to the headquarters of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) at Yenan (Yan’an). While in North China their elder daughter and son were born.

The Lindsay family left China in November 1945. Chou En-lai (Zhou Enlai) gave them funds for their travel, and Mao hosted a farewell dinner. Informed by their long association with communists, Michael wrote a critique of the bureaucracy and ideological rigidity of the Yenan regime that he distributed to friends prior to his departure. Returning to England, he published newspaper and other articles on the political situation in China. He was a visiting lecturer (1946–47) at Harvard University, United States of America, before being appointed lecturer in economics at University College, Hull, in 1948.

On 23 January 1951 Lindsay accepted a position as senior research fellow in the department of international relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, at the Australian National University (ANU). His candidacy had been strongly supported by Professor (Sir) Walter Crocker, his contemporary at Balliol and the head of the department. In facilitating their arrival, the vice-chancellor, Sir Douglas Copland, sought and received confirmation from immigration authorities that Lindsay’s wife and children would be admitted to Australia despite the White Australia policy. He also felt it necessary to inform them that Lindsay was not a communist. On the death of his father in March 1952, Michael succeeded to the title of Baron Lindsay of Birker, of Low Ground in the County of Cumberland.

Lord Lindsay’s record of publishing, broadcasting, public speaking, and contributing to national debate was exceptionally energetic. He delivered the 1953 George E. Morrison lecture at the ANU, and the 1955 Roy Milne memorial lecture for the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In 1953 he was appointed to the tenured position of senior fellow. During August the following year the Lindsays were translators for the visit of Clement (Earl) Attlee, the former British prime minister, and his party to China. Lindsay’s major work, China and the Cold War: A Study in International Politics, was published in 1955. In January 1957 he and his wife became Australian citizens.

In his research work, Lindsay was critical of the (then influential) ‘realism’ of E. H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau, finding their reliance on a single factor—the struggle for power—as little different from the Marxist insistence upon the ubiquity of class struggle. During the 1950s, as the tussle between the Eastern and Western blocs intensified, he developed the view that policy makers were in thrall to ideological rather than scientific understandings. In the context of the nuclear arms race, the scope for miscalculation was considerable and could prove catastrophic. His work on peaceful coexistence was a plea to improve communication between the blocs, so as to transcend ideological biases. In the case of China, a necessary step was the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Following Crocker’s departure in 1952, Lindsay was acting head of the department until late 1957. As he did not occupy a senior position, he was excluded from meetings of the Board of Graduate Studies, hindering his ability to defend and develop the department and its work. His argument that international relations needed to build a distinct research program within the school was effectively ignored. In 1955 he unsuccessfully applied for the chair of international relations; the position was offered to Martin Wight, reader at the London School of Economics and Political Science, in late 1956. Encouraged by Sir Keith Hancock, director of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS), Lindsay wrote to Wight outlining his view of their discipline and the emphasis he thought best for it in Australia, given the country’s geopolitical circumstances. Though he was held to have ‘scared’ Wight away (Foster and Varghese 1996, 109), their correspondence largely related to methodological issues. In his view of the discipline Wight was more focused on matters of theory; Lindsay, though philosophically sophisticated, favoured applied studies useful for the practice of foreign policy.

While on study leave in Taiwan and the United States in 1958, Lindsay learned the unwelcome news that his department had been moved into the RSSS under the authority of the head of political science. Although promoted to reader in May 1959, he remained frustrated by the lack of local recognition of his administrative effort and academic standing. Soon after, he accepted an appointment as professor of far eastern studies in the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC. As a parting shot he published articles critical of ANU management, and produced an account of its failures. Although he forwarded this work to the university and sought redress for damage to his reputation, none was forthcoming.

Lindsay’s writing began to focus on the dominance of what he considered irrational Marxist ideology on China’s policies and the consequent difficulties of crafting a productive relationship with the United States. Prevented from entering mainland China until 1973, on that occasion he left a strong critic of the Cultural Revolution. During later visits he developed a more favourable view in response to reforms introduced under Deng Xiaoping. After retiring in 1975 he devoted time to his hobbies of tinkering with radios and cars. Survived by his wife, son, and younger daughter, he died on 13 February 1994 at Chevy Chase, Maryland. Hsiao Li (d. 2010) returned to China. Their son, James, served as Australia’s deputy high commissioner to Pakistan and later Kenya.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. ANUA 8, Papers Relating to the Report on Lord Lindsay’s Complaints
  • Australian National University Archives. ANUA 19–, Lindsay, Michael
  • Cotton, James. International Relations in Australia: Michael Lindsay, Martin Wight, and the First Department at the Australian National University. Working Paper 2010/2. Canberra: Department of International Relations, ANU, 2010
  • Crocker, Walter. Memoirs, 1902–75. Sir Walter Crocker Papers, 1922–2002, MSS 327 C938p, 2.1. Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide
  • Foster, S. G., and Margaret M. Varghese. The Making of the Australian National University: 19461996. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • Lawrence, Susan V. ‘Hsiao Li Lindsay Obituary.’ Guardian (London), 1 June 2010. Accessed 27 September 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Lindsay, Hsiao Li. Bold Plum: With the Guerrillas in China’s War against Japan. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, 2007
  • Lindsay, Michael. Is Peaceful Co-existence Possible? East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1960
  • Lindsay, Michael. The Unknown War: North China 1937–1945. London: Bergstrom and Boyle, 1975
  • Lindsay Papers. Private collection
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 788

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Citation details

James Cotton, 'Lindsay, Michael Francis (1909–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lindsay of Birker, 2nd Baron

24 February, 1909
London, Middlesex, England


13 February, 1994 (aged 84)
Chevy Chase, Maryland, United States of America

Cause of Death


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